Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Great Elsmere Bulldozer Rampage

North Dupont Road is generally a quiet place.

The small town of Elsmere does not make the national news often, but it did in 1961. Former Elsmere resident, J.C.’s account of the day:

A Normal Day

Thanksgiving Day 1961 started out for Mom & Dad just like any other in the past, but was destined to become an epic day for the family because of me, my brother Bill and another set of brothers. Dinner wouldn’t be ready for a while, so Bill and I went outside to play. We got up with our friends, two brothers who lived down the street, and went in search of something to do.That something was using pieces of cardboard to slide down the dirt hill at a construction company’s equipment storage site. There happened to be a bulldozer sitting at the site across from the dirt hill, so while some of us were sliding, others went to investigate the bulldozer. I was on the other side of the hill when all of the sudden I heard the sound of a machine starting up. Looking over, I saw a plume of smoke coming out of the bulldozer’s stack. Bill was the last one off as it started to move backwards… Needless to say, we all ran the other way as fast as we could.The last I saw, the bulldozer was nearing a large boulder. I felt the boulder would stop the machine, and it would sit there and run till it ran out of gas. Boy was I ever so wrong.

We ran through an open field by the railroad tracks and looped around to the upper end of the neighborhood. That way we would be coming home from a different direction than the running bulldozer and could claim that we had nothing to do with it.

The rock did not stop the bulldozer, all it did was give a slight alteration to its course.  After glancing off the bolder, it backed through the equipment yard fence, through the construction company’s office, demolishing it, then down a row of supports for a pole barn that was being built to store the construction company’s equipment.   

The 20-ton bulldozer was parked on the property of masonry contractor Charles Cocciolone, where the boys were playing. The machine was owned by John Julian Construction Company, who was doing some work for Cocciolone at the time. The first bit of damage described by J.C. was at the site of the Rushton Tree Service, whose office was obliterated.

Preparing for Thanksgiving Dinner.

After exiting the Rushton property, the bulldozer slowly continued along toward the rear of the home of John Goheen at 108 N. Dupont Road. Goheen had just left home to go to the store, but his daughter Thelma, and housekeeper Dolly Pierce were in the kitchen, located in the rear of the home, preparing for Thanksgiving Dinner. They heard a rumbling noise as the huge machine entered the property, first flattening a fence, then toppling a tree. Pierce looked out the kitchen window and saw the rampaging dozer about to crash through the kitchen wall. Frantically, she grabbed Thelma, who was blind, and the two made it into the dining room just as the dozer tore into the kitchen, ripping down two walls, leaving only the range undamaged. 

This Philadelphia Bulletin photo shows the extent of the damage 
to the Goheen's kitchen at 108 N. Dupont Road

The unmanned dozer then entered the property of J. Rodman Steele, Sr. at 112 N. Dupont Road. Steele’s son, Rodman Steele, Jr,  a junior at the University of Delaware,, was home for the holiday and upstairs in his room when he heard the sound of the bulldozer crashing through the Goheen house next door. Steele recalls looking out his window and seeing it coming through Goheen's kitchen. He started yelling to his parents, ran down the stairs, burst out the front door and saw Thelma Goheen and Dolly Pierce come out of their front door at the same moment.

The 20-ton bulldozer changed its trajectory slightly when it crossed over a small embankment between the properties. It missed the Steele home, but it flattened shrubbery, knocked over a pair of gate posts, and struck Steele's car.

The dozer then made its way to 116 N. Dupont Road, where it rammed a car owned by Miss. Lois Dougherty, crushing it, shoving it along for 20 feet, and then carried its trunk another 33 feet. Striking Dougherty's car caused the dozer to slightly pivot again and cross Dupont Road where it then struck a 1959 Rambler owned by Charles Boyer of 119 N. Dupont Road. Boyer's car was dragged along under the blade of the dozer as it continued backwards another 28 feet before the runaway dozer plowed under a 4-foot-square stone driveway pillar. 

This Morning News photo shows the wreckage of Charles Boyer's 1959
Rambler after being run over and dragged behind the bulldozer.

J. Rodman Steele, Jr. decided he was going to try to shut off the runaway dozer. Climbing onto the machine over the moving treads was a very dangerous prospect. Instead, he ran up behind the slow-moving bulldozer, climbed onto and over the blade as it was running in reverse, and then into the driver’s seat. Once in the driver’s seat, Steele attempted to stop the dozer. He was joined by Charles Boyer who climbed on as the bulldozer was passing the home of Charles R. Beattie, Sr. at 121 N. Dupont Road.

Newspaper stories credit Steele with turning off the runaway dozer, and saving the day. However, he recalled that in spite of trying all of the various levers and buttons, he wasn't having any luck. Fortunately, it ran into a tree that was just too stout for it to push over. The bulldozer’s treads were unable to dig in, and just pushed the dirt away from under it. As it was bogged down on the tree, Steele finally managed to turn off the engine, bringing the runaway bulldozer’s rampage to an end just 20 feet before making a direct strike on the home of Charles L. Brown at 125 N. Dupont Road. 

This Evening Journal photo shows where the runaway 
bulldozer came to rest. The home of Charles L. Brown at
125 N. Dupont Road is directly in its path.

Mom Fainted

J.C. and Bill’s father was coming home from Choir practice when he came across the aftermath of the bulldozer’s wrath. He hurried home to get the family so they could see the wreckage, However, J.C. and Bill were not at home at the time so he just brought their mother and sister. Shortly thereafter J.C. and Bill made it home, J.C. explains, “when we got home, no one was there so Bill and I went into the living room and turned on the TV. We had not been watching too long when everyone came home. My sister Elaine, came running into the living room and demanded to know why we started the bulldozer. She had no idea we were involved, and was just kidding us. Bill and I both broke out in tears and cried, “We didn’t mean to!” Mom fainted on the spot! Luckily, Dad was able to catch her as she fell.”

Once Mom came to, and we got things sorted out, Dad took Bill and I down the street to let the police know who was responsible. It was then that my brother and I saw what really happened while we were running away.

We were amazed at the damage we caused. I’m sure Dad was at a loss for words as he tried to explain to the police officer what we had told him about our part in the afternoon’s events.  Bill told us that as they pulled the various levers, he was saying, Eni, meini, minie, mo, push this button and away we go. And it went!”

The four boys were taken by the police to the home of Magistrate Dolores Hamilton of Cooper Farms, and were charged with malicious mischief. (In those days, magistrates worked from their homes.) They were released into the custody of their parents pending an appearance in Family Court.

The following day the John Julian Construction Company’s insurance adjustor surveyed the path of destruction. The damage to the Goheen’s house was listed at $4,000, Steele's car $100, Dougherty's car $700, Boyer's 1959 Rambler was totaled at $1,350. Those items along with the other buildings, trees, shrubbery, fences and even some Christmas presents that were hidden in the trunk of one of the cars brought the grand total of estimated damages to $10,000, the equivalent of about $86,000 in 2020. As it turned out, Goheen had just signed a contract to have his kitchen remodeled. The contractor was supposed to start work on it the Monday after Thanksgiving. So everything worked out well for him. He got his new kitchen, but didn't have to pay for it. 

 The investigators met with the 4 boys' parents as part of the process to determine who was financially responsible for the destruction. While James Julian had enough insurance to pay for the damages, he wasn’t sure whether he was responsible or not. “A representative of my insurance company is coming from Philadelphia today to discuss the whole thing with the boys’ parents.” said Julian. 

Patrolman Noland said there were no keys on the bulldozer and the only way to lock it is to remove plugs or disconnect wires. Local residents said that other boys had actually managed to start the bulldozer two weeks before, but they did not set it into motion.

A Day in Court

When the boys finally went to Family Court the judge was not happy with the fact that they had been charged and brought into court in the first place, due to all the boys being between the ages of 8 and 10. The judge then ruled that the dozer should not have been left unsecured and declared the bulldozer was an “attractive nuisance.” Because of this, the boys were all found to be not guilty, and Julian's insurance eventually covered the cost of the rampage. 

When J.C. turned 16 he started working at the Rockford Esso, soon to be Exxon, station over by the Augustine bridge in Wilmington. He recalls a young guy came in one day for an oil change and while he was doing it they started talking. In the course of the conversation J.C. found out that the guy was John Julian's son. He told J.C. that his father was not a happy camper with the ruling, but the son felt that the judge was right. J.C. points out, “the son was a regular at the service station and I ended up doing a lot of work on his car. Small world.”

The story was picked up by the wire services and was printed in hundreds of newspapers across the country. J.C.’s Aunt in Iowa read about it in their local paper. It has largely been forgotten until now. 

Special thanks to J. Rodman Steele, Jr. and J.C. for sharing their stories. The last names of J.C, and Bill have been withheld. The names of the other brothers have been completely removed. As they were minors at the time and since Delaware is Delaware, someone may know their identity, please don’t post their full names in the comments.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Wilmington's Role in The Lady Bird Special

Early 1900s Postcard View of Wilmington Shops
Wilmington has been a railroad town since America became connected by steel rails. There are countless bits of history tied to Wilmington and its railroads. This little bit tells how in 1964 the employees at the Pennsylvania Railroad's shop at Wilmington played a role in making history. 

On October 6, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson's wife, Lady Bird Johnson, did something no other First Lady had ever done. Instead of campaigning along side of her husband, she embarked on a solo campaign tour. The ground-breaking four-day, 1,628-mile campaign trip took place aboard a train dubbed The Lady Bird Special. She traveled through eight southern states, campaigning on behalf of her husband. 

Library of Congress Photo by Marion S. Trikosko
Lady Bird was able to promote her husband's agenda while using her own southern roots to carefully balance southern tradition with idea of Civil Rights. The First Lady and her staff planned the tour and she personally contacted the various elected officials in each of the eight states to lay the groundwork for her stops. The food served on board was all southern cuisine chosen by Lady Bird herself. 

The Morning News,  Oct_2, 1964
Photo by Bill Snead
Blueprint use by the workers at Wilmington
U.S. National Archives
The Democratic National Committee went to the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) to supply a luxury railcar, called an observation car for Lady Bird. The parlor-observation car, Queen Mary, was selected. In September 1964 the craftsmen at the PRR's Wilmington shops took on the task to refurbish and repaint the car for the First Lady's historic journey. Lady Bird's train was 19 cars, but only her observation car, was painted red, white, and blue with unique Lady Bird Special lettering. The open platform of the observation car was fitted with a podium and loudspeakers. 

The Evening Journal, Oct 2, 1964
Photo by Bill Snead
Photo from Facebook
by Ed Swientochowski

National Endowment for the Humanities
photographer unknown
Lady Bird's help was badly needed because the south was in turmoil over the Civil Rights movement. Lady Bird said, “I want to go because I am proud of the South and I am proud that I am part of the South.”  Lady Bird's press secretary Liz Carpenter later wrote, “Our star attraction was a Southern-bred First Lady. We were supposed to blow kisses and spread love through eight states and make them like it….”

LBJ Postcard
LBJ Library
In four days, Lady Bird traveled from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans making 47 speeches in 47 towns to approximately 500,000 southerners. President Johnson won the election and Lady Bird is credited with helping him win many votes in the south. 

Lady Bird's observation car was returned to regular service for a number of years before being sold off and used as part of a railroad-themed restaurant in Wayne, New Jersey. It was scrapped in the early 2000s. 
The former Lady Bird Special in Wayne, NJ by Rob Schoenberg

The former PRR Wilmington Shops continue to play an important role for Amtrak and employ many men and women who continue Wilmington's historic and economic ties to the nation's railroad system. 

Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Kiamensi Spring Water Company

Long ago, about 4 miles west of Wilmington, there was a bottling plant along the banks of the Red Clay Creek. Today the site of the former Kiamensi Springs Company sits Almost Forgotten in the woods behind the neighborhood of Albertson Park. Check out our new video and learn about the Kiamensi Springs Company, who quenched the thirst of locals for 15 years a century ago. We're taking a bit of a new approach with this topic with this short video presented in cooperation with Greenbank Mills and Philips Farm

We've written about Brandywine Springs before and there is more to come. The park is filled with stories that need to be told. We're excited to work with Greenbank Mill and Philips Farm. More Valley Vignettes will be coming your way in the coming months. 

Friday, April 3, 2020

Walk Through History at Brandywine Springs

New Castle County has put out a new video showcasing Brandywine Springs Park. The once-famous park is filled with history and has been the subject of our research on numerous projects. Markers have been installed throughout the park by Friends of Brandywine Springs. Even though we recently posted about Brandywine Springs, we wanted to share the new video and thank New Castle County for showcasing the park. With spring-like weather ahead, Brandywine Springs is a great place to take a socially-distant walk to get a little exercise and learn a few things. 

Brandywine Springs is a real gem and worth a visit. We're doing our part to spread the word about the park, which offers a great blend of nature and history. Look for more Almost Forgotten History blog posts about Brandywine Springs in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Union Park Gardens

Evening Journal
October 7, 1892
In the late 1800s the western city limits of Wilmington were at Union Street. Located on the large undeveloped space west of Union Street at Front Street (now Lancaster Ave), there was a park known as the Front & Union Park or sometimes known as the Union Street Park. This park held picnic grounds, athletic fields, and various attractions. The athletic grounds were used for track & field games and even bicycle racing but baseball was the mainstay. In 1882 the Wilmington Quicksteps leased the grounds and built stands for 700 people. The lease did not allow liquor, gambling, or games on Sunday. The Quicksteps were a professional team that played in the Union League. Musical acts, circuses, and traveling shows would also set up there as well. The park was situated at the end of the Front Street trolley line and easily accessible to most Wilmingtonians. 

Evening Journal
On April 6, 1917 America entered the Great War and soon after, found its manufacturing capabilities woefully unprepared. To fight a war on another continent America was going to need to transport a lot of men and material across the Atlantic Ocean. German U-Boats were sinking a lot of ships, 5,000 of them over the course of the war. To meet the needs of wartime shipbuilding production the Emergency Fleet Corporation was created to build and operate merchant ships to move war materials.

Wilmington had always been a shipbuilding city and getting its shipyards turning out merchant ships was a top priority. The Emergency Fleet Corporation took over shipbuilders Harlan & Hollingsworth and Pusey & Jones. Workers were pouring into the city as the shipyards swung into full gear. Wilmington’s shipbuilding industry was soon faced with a serious problem. There was no place to house the newly-arrived shipyard workers. 

Evening Journal 5-25-1918
The Liberty Land Company was formed to undertake a huge building project to house the shipyard workers. The 58-acre Front & Union Park on the west side of the city was an ideal location for a large housing project. The property was purchased and the project got underway, Meanwhile shipyard workers were overwhelming Wilmington and the housing situation was critical. 

Site plan of Union Park Gardens 
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

Town planner and landscape architect John Nolen, a native of Philadelphia was selected to design the neighborhood in the style of the English Garden movement. The Philadelphia architecture and engineering firm Ballinger and Perrot worked with Nolen designing the houses. The Lynch Construction company of New York was selected as the general contractor. The new neighborhood was named Union Park Gardens honoring the old picnic grounds and athletic fields. 

June 25, 1918
Morning News
Ground was broken on June 24, 1918 and a literal army of workers started right away. The initial crew was 200 men but it was increased to 1,000 as soon as dormitories and mess halls were built.  

Temporary dormitories for the workers can be seen going up in this photo dated 8-23-1918. 
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

In short order the workforce was increased to 2,400 
and peaked at 3,755. This could have been the largest and quickest residential construction project ever undertaken in Delaware, with nearly all the work done by hand. Pick and shovel laborers were paid 40 cents per hour and skilled tradesmen 75 cents. 

The amount of manpower is evident in this photo dated 8-23-1918.
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

Because of its size, this project caused a brick shortage in the Wilmington area. The Lynch Construction Company placed an order for twelve million bricks. It took the city’s two brick manufacturers 40 days working around the clock to meet the order.

Machines were nearly non-existent as seen in this view of the 200 block of Union Street dated 11-1-1918.
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

Even though motorized trucks were coming into use, the vast majority of materials were delivered using horse and wagon. In addition to the 3,755 men, hundreds of horses were used as well. With that much manpower the houses began to rise quickly on the former picnic grounds. 

201 S. Union Street is shown here under construction in this photo dated 11-1-1918.
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

Every single brick, piece of lumber, and shingle was offloaded from wagons by hand to staging areas and then carried into place when needed. 

204 S. Bancroft Parkway is is shown here under construction in this photo dated 11-1-1918.
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

By October of 1918, just 4 months after ground was broken, the first of the houses were ready for occupancy. 

201-207 S. Bancroft Parkway & 2100-2106 Biddle Street are shown here nearly finished in this photo dated 11-1-1918.
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

The War to End all Wars ended on 11-11-1918, and suddenly building huge numbers of ships was no longer a priority. Production and manpower was cut at the shipyards and subsequently the Lynch Construction Company slowed down construction on Union Park Gardens. 

The corner of Lancaster Ave. and Bancroft Parkway is seen here on 11-1-1918. 
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

In July of 1919 about 300 of the 506 houses were occupied and work was progressing slowly. The houses were owned by the United State Shipping Board and rented to the shipyard workers.

The same location is seen a month later.  
Courtesy Cornell University Library. 

The families wanted to own the homes rather than rent, but they were not for sale. The government poured $5 million dollars into the massive effort to build the neighborhood which amounts to about $10,000 per house. At that time, the going rate for houses was about one third of that amount. 

The residents of Union Park Garden wanted to purchase the houses directly, however the government wanted to sell the entire lot to an investor.  On November 20, 1920 the United State Shipping Board listed the entire neighborhood for sale by means of a sealed bid. 

Biddle Street is seen here on 11-1-1918. 
Courtesy Cornell University Library

There was only one bid for the entire neighborhood and a flurry of bids for individual properties by the tenants. The Industrial Trust Company of Wilmington was the lone bidder for the entire property with a bid of $1.15 million. All bids were rejected as too low and a request went out for bids again with a $2 million minimum. In the meantime with reduced work at the shipyard workers were demanding a reduction in rent. Union Park Gardens had become a financial albatross. 

On April 21, 1921 the Morning News announced that Union Park Gardens was sold to a Philadelphia syndicate for $1.6 million, but soon after, the deal fell through. On February 27, 1922 over 5,000 people attended an auction that sold 286 of the properties at prices ranging from $2,000 to $4,500. The remaining properties were sold the next day. The two-day auction brought in $1.57 million. 

The saga doesn't end there. By July, the purchasers still had not gotten deeds to their properties. Senator T. Coleman DuPont was called upon to lean on the United State Shipping Board which got things moving. By the end of July, with over 500 deeds coming into his office, Darlington Flinn, the county Recorder of Deeds, had to appoint 5 extra clerks to process the paperwork. 

The Evening Journal - February 18, 1922

By the early part of August the final deeds were recorded, and the government was finally rid of its housing business in Wilmington. The majority of the ships built by the Emergency Fleet Corporation never made it into wartime service and were converted into cargo ships. This caused a huge glut of new ships, which drove down prices that resulted in another huge financial loss for government. 

The neighborhood known as The Flats was also built at the same time. That will have to be the subject for another post. Darlington Flinn, the Recorder of Deeds, is also on the list for a future post. 

If you have a story or memory of Union Park Gardens please post it below in the comments. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Charles "Kid" Finney, Delaware's First African-American Professional Athlete

Most people in Delaware have never heard of Charles Henry “Kid” Finney, but during the early twentieth century he was well known to sports fans in both the First State and the region. Finney was born in Dover around 1887, his exact birthdate remains a mystery because during that time accurate records were not kept, and throughout his life, Finney himself reported his age inconsistently. 

He grew up in what he
described as a tough part of Dover, known as Kirben’s Row. In 1953 Finney told the Journal Every-Evening that it was on Kirben’s Row that young boys in the neighborhood used to put on pillow-like gloves and box. Finney soon “licked all of the boys in his gang” and took up boxing as his livelihood. 

Eventually, the skinny kid from Kirben’s Row proved himself to be one of Delaware’s great boxers. The 1900 US Census shows Finney was living in the Marshallton area where he would soon make his mark.

In 1903 Finney was filmed by the Edison Company for the short comedy, "A Scrap in Black and White." The film was one nine made at Brandywine Springs in 1903. All nine survive today. They are the oldest surviving films made in Delaware.

At this time, prizefighting was illegal in Delaware however boxing itself was not illegal. Boxers were allowed to be paid to fight, they were paid a flat fee and not permitted to win a prize. In the early 1900s it was nearly impossible for African Americans to participate in professional sports. Countless great athletes were never able to cross the “color line.” Even the most impressive demonstrations of athleticism were largely ignored by the newspapers. Often when a newspaper paper ran a story, it would diminish the accomplishment and reduce the dignity of these athletes by referring to them with racial slurs.

African Americans in boxing were typically limited to boxing in “battle royal” fights that were offered as an opening act at boxing events or simply staged as a spectacle. A promoter would find six to ten African Americans and have them all fight at once, slugging away at each other until one man was left standing.

In 1936 Finney told the Journal Every-Evening that it was in one of these battle royals near Brandywine Springs where he started his career as a professional 
Morning News 4-30-1910
pugilist in 1905. Finney won the battle royal and was awarded the sum of one dollar. It is easy to close your eyes and imagine a group of skinny, ragged, young African-American men slugging away at each other whilst a large group of men surround them yelling and cheering. Sometimes men would toss coins in during the match and the boxers would simply stop when the coins stopped. Side bets were often a big part of the battle royal. The next week the local boxing club had Finney return for a bout against local boxer Ralph Raymond.

By 1908 Wilmington newspapers were calling Finney the bantamweight champion of Delaware and a
From the Morning News 
favorite at Brandywine Springs. Finney became well known for his speed, his ability to be battered, and most importantly for sending his opponents to pummel city. Local boxers would write letters to the sports editor of the Wilmington newspapers asking to challenge Finney. He was soon boxing regularly at Brandywine Springs and at various venues around Wilmington and eventually Chester, Philadelphia, and beyond. 

Entry in the 1910 US Census

The 1910 Census list Finney’s profession as pugilist while living at No. 4 High Street in Wilmington with his wife Rosa. Webster's dictionary give the following definition for Pugilist: : FIGHTER 
especially : a professional boxer

After Finney became the bantamweight champion of Delaware, he found no shortage of opponents. Potential opponents even published challenges to Finney in the Wilmington newspapers. Finney would often take on men who outweighed him by 20 pounds and at least once fought two men in one evening. The April 1, 1910 edition of the Evening
Evening Journal
Journal reported that in Philadelphia, Finney defeated Jake Spewak in three rounds. The fans clamored for more and Young Dugan stepped up and challenged him to go three more rounds. Finney took the challenge and bested him too. Official records were not kept, so we do not know the exact dates of all of his fights, nor do we know the length of his reign as champion, but we do know he was active in boxing on and off until 1927 and then trained other boxers in the 1940s. We also know various newspaper reports credit Finney with over 400 wins against only a handful of losses, and reportedly, he was never knocked out.

The Country Roller Rink was located next to Brandywine Springs Park and also served as a venue for fist men to pound the flesh. The bouts at Country Roller Rink quickly gained popularity and boxing flourished at Brandywine Springs, albeit, outside of the park. On May 2, 1910 the Evening Journal reported a boxing card featuring Finney was enough of a draw that the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad operated a special train to the rink from Philadelphia and Chester and the Peoples Railway had 30 trolley cars in use to carry eager boxing fans from Wilmington.

After his boxing career ended, Finney, with little formal education and no other marketable skills, fell on hard times. For a while he lived on Klund Street, one of the poorest ramshackle streets in Wilmington, and for a number of years worked as a junk collector and then as a janitor. At one point in the early 1930s he became ill and spent some time in the State Welfare Home where he was nursed back to health. On May 10, 1963, Finney died in a tiny row house at 910 Walnut Street in Wilmington, his achievements from a half century before had largely been forgotten.

Countless African-American athletes from Finney’s era never got the chance to make it as far as Finney, their names and faces are long lost. Finney crossed the color line and made a living as a pugilist. Finney was a pioneer, perhaps, the first African-American athlete in Delaware to earn a living in sports. His story has been Almost Forgotten.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Great Kiamensi Bridge Swap

Postcard view of the Kiamensi Woolen Mill
In the early 20th century Kiamensi was a small industrial hamlet built around a woolen mill in Mill Creek Hundred. In July of 1907 the folks in the rural village of Kiamensi witnessed the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad carry out one of the greatest feats of engineering ever undertaken in Delaware. A feat that arguably has never been matched.

1891 view of the B&O RR bridge over the Red Clay Creek

The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad route between New York and Washington, The Royal Blue Route, was built in the 1880s. By the early 1900s the bridge over the Red Clay Creek at Kiamensi, like all of the original bridges, was becoming obsolete due to the increasing size and weight of the trains. A major bridge building campaign was launched that saw the replacement of all bridges on the route. The iconic arch bridge over the Brandywine at Augustine was built during this time.

Postcard view the B&O RR bridge over the Brandywine

Replacing bridges on an operating railroad without interrupting the flow of commerce has always presented major engineering challenges. The bridge over the Brandywine required building a new bridge and rerouting the railroad over a new alignment to connect to the new bridge once it was completed.

As seen from  Marshallton the
Kiamensi bridge is visible in the distance.
For the bridge at Kiamensi the railroad decided on a grand plan of action never before or since attempted on such a scale in Delaware. The existing structure was one of the largest bridges in Delaware at the time. It towered 50 feet over the surface of the Red Clay Creek, was 160 feet long, and weighed 800 tons. The new bridge weighing 1,200 tons was to be built next to the existing bridge on temporary foundations.

The two bridges were to be bolted together, the tracks severed, and slid together as one unit putting the new bridge in the same place as the old one with minimal disruption to the busy railroad. This required not only a temporary foundation for the new bridge but a second temporary foundation for the old bridge to rest on once the move was complete. Work on the new bridge was started by the Youngstown Construction Company in September of 1906. The temporary foundations, called falsework, were built first on the upstream side of the bridge and then construction started. The bridge was built in pieces, delivered in kit form, and assembled by a
Steam donkey with derrick.
team of 350 men using wooden derricks and ropes with the muscle provided by a steam donkey. Word got out that Sunday, July 14, 1907 would be the big day. The new bridge was ready on the upstream side and the falsework on the downstream side was ready to receive the old bridge. The two bridges were sitting upon railroad tracks built on the falsework and rollers were in place to guide the bridges down the rails for their short journey.
About 600 men, women, and children gathered near the bridge to see the performance. At 11:45AM what was to be the very last train over the old bridge rolled through Kiamensi. The track workers on both sides of the Red Clay Creek quickly severed the rails.

A close-up view of a donkey engine. 

The boiler and donkey engine started to do their work but nothing happened. The boiler operator stoked the fire with extra wood and tossed in some crude petroleum but the engine just could not get the bridges to move. In a few minutes they quietly announced the shifting of the bridges was postponed. The track workers quickly
reconnected the track and soon trains were running over the old bridge once again. 

On Wednesday, July 17, 1907 the construction crew had made the required adjustments, made some repairs to the boiler of the donkey engine, and were ready to try again. 

Donkey engines with derricks being used in the construction 
of the elevated railroad through Wilmington in 1905.

At 11:15AM with a somewhat smaller group of spectators, and a second donkey engine as a backup, the track workers disconnected the rails for the second time. The signal was given and the donkey engine started tugging on the heavy ropes attached to the two bridges. Inch by inch, two bridges slowly started moving. 

After about two minutes the donkey engine stopped due to low steam. Worry had to be setting in because the move was not complete. About a minute passed
and the engine started working again. The new bridge was in place moments later. The track workers quickly reconnected the rails. The whole operation was completed in five minutes and train traffic was uninterrupted. The old bridge was dismantled, the falseworks removed, and all that remained was new bridge over the Red Clay Creek. 

Postcard view of the 1907 B&O RR
bridge at Kiamensi

The replacement of the Kiamensi Bridge is still one of the most amazing feats of engineering ever accomplished in Delaware. The engineers who designed the bridge did their job well. Over a century later, the 1907 bridge is still serving the needs of CSX, the current operator of the old B&O Railroad. The next time you’re driving along Kiamensi Road, look upstream as you cross the Red Clay Creek and you'll get a quick glimpse of the Kiamensi railroad bridge.

The 1907 bridge is still in use today.
Photo by Don Richard.

The Great Elsmere Bulldozer Rampage

North Dupont Road is generally a quiet place. The small town of Elsmere does not make the national news often, but it did in 1961. Former El...